It starts with a cough. It ends with death on an unimaginable scale.
"Contagion," the new thriller by Steven Soderbergh, tells a story for our time, a story of raging menace and out of control fear. It offers us thirtysomething days in the life of a global pandemic, a lethal virus that travels like the wind and kills without a trace of mercy. This may not fit any conventional definition of entertainment, but it certainly keeps your eyes on the screen.
Soderbergh, who divides his career between unwatchable vanity projects and crackling mainstream fare, has never been the warmest of filmmakers, and that coldness and distance serve him well here. As the merciless MEV-1 virus ravages the planet, the uncomfortable prospect that every last person on Earth may die before the final credits roll feels all too possible.
Credit for this sense of disturbing unease has to be shared with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who co-wrote "The Bourne Ultimatum." He's constructed a story in which human arrogance, self-interest and stupidity are as dangerous as this disease that inevitably brings out the worst as well as the best in human behavior.
One of the things that makes Soderbergh (also his own cinematographer under the Peter Andrews alias) such an effective filmmaker is that he knows how to move stories along at an epidemic clip. Working with longtime editing collaborator Stephen Mirrione (who won an Oscar for the similarly episodic "Traffic"), Soderbergh's made a film you may not want to watch but can't stop yourself from staring at.
As with "Traffic," the director expertly choreographs an impressive cast that includes major players like Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard. Some of their characters will live, some will die, and neither the virus nor the filmmakers care.
The face behind that opening, unseen cough belongs to Paltrow, who plays traveling businesswoman Beth Emhoff. Introduced in an airport on her way home from a trip to China, she thinks what ails her is some minor bug. Except it's not.
The seriousness of Beth's illness brings some major changes to the lives of her husband, Mitch (Damon, the best Everyman in the business), and her step-daughter, Jory (an effective feature debut by Anna Jacoby-Heron). They're just regular folks from Minneapolis, for heaven's sake, they're not prepared for what's about to hit them.
Determined to leave no sick person behind, "Contagion" swiftly takes us around the world, exposing us to a panoply of desperately ill individuals in Hong Kong, Tokyo, London and elsewhere, people who disturbingly disintegrate and die right before our eyes. After seeing how easily the virus spreads, even touching your car door on the way home will take an effort of will.
A plague this lethal inevitably involves the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its unflappable deputy director Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne). He sends one of his best young investigators, Dr. Erin Mears (Winslet) to Minneapolis to see what's going on. Similarly, Geneva's World Health Organization sends top epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes (Cotillard) to China to figure out where it all began.
The increasing severity of the disease also attracts the attention of Alan Krumwiede (an intentionally irritating Law), an Internet conspiracy theorist based in (where else but) San Francisco. Krumwiede (even his name is annoying) may know some things others don't, but it's not necessarily information you can take to the bank.
The challenge the folks at the CDC face is identifying the virus, growing it in the lab and then coming up with a vaccine. Enlisted in this cause are a wide range of individuals, including virus guru Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould, a veteran Soderbergh collaborator) and the CDC's own Dr. Ally Hextall. Two-time Tony-winning actress Jennifer Ehle comes close to stealing the picture with this quietly yet quirkily empathetic performance.
Like the humans who combat the disease, "Contagion" is hardly perfect. Its sporadic attempts at sympathetic vignettes are largely beyond it, and some of its many plot strands play out less convincingly than others. But if you're looking for a film that makes the spread of a global pandemic seem more than plausible, this is where you want to be.